/ 4 May 2023

Grand plan to clean Nairobi’s rivers – again

Nairobi River
Let the river run: Korogocho residents have waited for decades for a sewerage system that doesn’t drain into rivers. Photo: Vincent Ngethe

Korogocho is a slum about nine kilometres northeast of Nairobi’s centre. It neighbours the city’s garbage dumps. The Nairobi River snakes its way through the area and its 40 000 residents. It brings floods, pollution and politicians promising easy fixes. 

“Our dream is for the river to be clean,” says Faries Kahuha, a member of community group Komb Green.

In early April, the river was swollen from recent rains and the water was dark, a clear sign of pollution.

Kahuha talks about the regular attempts to clean up this part of the river, one of Nairobi’s three major rivers. The Ngong and the Mathare are the other two. Ever since he was a child, he’s seen people being paid to pull waste out of the river, only to dump it all on the river bank.

Through volunteers and their own work, Komb Green has helped to create a park along the river. It’s called the Korogocho People’s Park because the initiative was driven by locals. Opened five years ago, it’s now a safe place for children to play and for women to sit.

President William Ruto used the park to launch the Nairobi Rivers Commission in February. He called the river “discoloured, smelly, often corrosive and toxic” and “this state of affairs must come to an end and the unsafe and unhealthy environmental situation must be corrected”. 

Kahuha says although they didn’t get to meet the president, they’re still waiting for his words to turn into action. 

“We’re patient,” he adds.

Damaris Mbui, an environmental chemist at the University of Nairobi, says studies show local rivers have pollution levels that are far above the safe limits allowed by the World Health Organisation.

Calvin Okoth, who also works at Komb Green, says industries pollute with little consequence. “You can watch the water suddenly go black. But we don’t have the resources to take on these companies — they can fight and we just have our voices.”

The National Environmental Management Authority has increased enforcement on polluters since 2019. Now it will have to work with many other stakeholders on the commission if this cleanup is to succeed.

Government cleanups have come and gone since 1999, when Kenya passed the Environmental Management Act. As home to the global offices of the United Nations Environment Programme, the country needed Nairobi to look better. The city partnered with the UN to clean up the whole Nairobi River Basin.

But subsequent plans saw people living along the river as the problem. They are blamed for polluting rivers, in part because they do not have proper sewerage systems and toilets drain into rivers.

A 2018 report by Kenya’s auditor general said there were many big sewerage lines but were not being connected to neighbourhoods, leaving people without a way to dispose of waste.

The state has previously proposed resettlement as part of the solution and a 2008 plan would have meant 127 000 people being moved. That plan has not gone ahead, after human rights organisations argued that there was no clear plan for their resettlement or compensation.

The Nairobi Rivers Commission said it is “engaging stakeholders” on a long-term strategy to stop pollution, and managing waste, with residents at the centre of the initiative. 

On the issue of moving people, it says it wants to promote migration to rural areas with the counties, and “enterprises that engage communities in food security and wealth creation”.

At the commission’s launch, Ruto offered a carrot. To loud cheers, he said people would pay $22 a month for a new home that they would then own after 15 years. The stick had come during the Covid-19 lockdown, when 5 000 families in a nearby district were evicted to make way for a sewerage treatment plant.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.